Ethical Egoism & Abortion Ethical

SAMPLE EXCERPT:

The formula of universal law seems to offer a method for evaluating maxims of abortion that eschews the contentious question of whether the fetus is a person. This method also appears to render unnecessary the task of locating one duty in relation to which to understand abortion. (Dennis 2007, 547-8)

In other words, the Kantian ethical school -- against which ethical egoism tends to define itself -- is concerned with defining the ethics of abortion in terms of whether or not it would be morally good if the act of abortion were universal. Denis notes that Kantian approaches to finding abortion unethical can be formulated in different ways, and restricts herself to examining two different stances. The first suggests a thought experiment: if one is a person who is happy to be alive, then one must imagine being able to return to the past when one's mother was pregnant and considering having an abortion. In this time-travel scenario, one's own right to exist would seemingly outweigh the mother's right to have an abortion -- therefore a universalization of this scenario would hold that abortion is unethical. A subtler statement of the universalist approach to abortion ethics, involves a version of the golden rule, and a requirement of consistency: ethical action involves a form of reciprocity whereby, if a person thinks an action is ethical to perform upon someone else, then that person cannot object is the action is performed upon himself or herself. The formulation of this argument regarding abortion, as stated by Gensler and summarized by Denis, holds that 'If you are consistent and think that abortion is normally morally permissible, then you will consent to the idea of your having been aborted in normal circumstances.' (Denis 2007, 550). In this formulation, it is seen that nobody would consent to the universal ethical rule as stated, and therefore abortion must be unethical.

Ethical egoism, as I have noted, defines itself largely against the Kantian or universalist school. This is not to say that ethical egoism lacks the impulse to universal statements of rules -- if anything, the ethical egoist is more given to insisting upon the universality of self-interest. The difference is that ethical egoists are opposed to any kind of moral or ethical proscriptions which do not have their foundation in self-interest. The advantage of this is that it manages to sidestep the largest problem in stating a universalist principle regarding abortion, which is the fact that half the human race is not in any position to make a meaningful ethical decision over whether to seek to have an abortion. Ethical egoism would couch the debate more appealingly in the direction of "let those who are opposed to abortion never have an abortion," and letting that be an end to it. But in terms of ethics, it is of course not an end to the question of abortion. In fact, ethical egoism opens up a larger set of problems as to what could meaningfully constitute "self-interest" in terms of abortion ethics. Again, we are faced with the consideration of different specific cases. As noted, it is hard (although not perhaps impossible) to find a person who considers killing in self-defense to be unethical behavior. Likewise, from the standpoint of ethical egoism, the idea of procuring an abortion to save one's own life -- in the case of, say, an ectopic pregnancy -- is easily justified. What becomes difficult is where to draw the line at what constitutes "self-interest." From an economic standpoint, it is possible to imagine a person who desires an abortion because it would not be economically feasible to have one more child in a family than already exists. Ethical egoism, which delights in economic views on ethical matters, would have no problem with seeing the woman who seeks an abortion in this case as justified. Indeed, Gordon (1982) in a history of the abortion debate, notes that the motivations of abortion opponents are, to a large degree, based on resisting the economic reductionism associated with ethical egoism, and in this case may share common ground with those who believe abortion should be legal; Gordon writes that abortion opponents

..fear a completely individualized society with all services based on cash nexus relationships, without the influence of nurturing women counteracting the completely egoistic principles of the economy, and without any forms in which children can learn about lasting human commitments to other people. Many feminists have the same fear. (Gordon 1982, 51)

This is a fairly accurate statement about the way in which ethical egoism, at its most reductionist, can come down to a statement about maximizing not ethical goods, but marketable goods. The strong ideology of "individualism" inherent in Kalin's position carries more than a whiff of free-market idolization of social Darwinism, and reminds us that the greatest popularizer of ethical egoist philosophy was probably Ayn Rand. The question of whether or not something is good in the larger sense is banished, and the only question is what is good for the individual. But if that is the case, where then can the line be drawn? It puts too great a pressure on the word "rational" in defining "rational self-interest" since casuistry can be used to apply to pretty much any ethical decision and make it seem like a good one by the standards of an ethical egoist. To use a somewhat outrageous example that actually took place in New Jersey in 1997, there is probably no school of ethics whatsoever that could justify the case of a pregnant eighteen-year-old who attends her senior prom, gives birth in the bathroom and leaves the baby in a trashcan, and then returns to the prom. This is infanticide, and whatever notion of self-interest could be invoked to suggest that having a good time at the prom somehow outweighs the obligation not to kill infants is unlikely to be endorsed even by the most zealous fans of Ayn Rand. But the difficulty here then becomes where ethical egoism would render the act permissible. Is "having a good time at the prom" a sufficient justification for terminating a pregnancy? In the simplistic economic analysis frequently favored by ethical egoism, it might be possible to construct a case in which this is actually justifiable. We could hypothesize the case of a young woman for whom it seems an ethical necessity to look good in a prom dress -- looking good in a prom dress will help this young woman to a later career as a beauty pageant winner, which would help later in being elected Governor of Alaska. This may sound preposterous, but from the definition of "rational self-interest" suggested by ethical egoism, personal ambition is a perfectly valid rationale for having an abortion. The allusion to Sarah Palin is intentional, since Palin received much publicity for the fact that she considered having an abortion once "for a fleeting moment" (Sweet 2009). Indeed, one could argue that Sarah Palin's much-publicized decision not to have an abortion under circumstances in which many women would have one -- during pregnancy as an older woman, while carrying a fetus with trisomy -- was ultimately put to the purpose of appealing to the large demographic of voters who identify as "pro-life." From the standpoint of ethical egoism, therefore, Sarah Palin's decision not to have an abortion -- a decision later used to publicize her political career -- is no different from the decision of a girl who actually has an abortion because pregnancy might negatively affect her future political career.

Of course, an admirer of Sarah Palin might object that Palin's use of the fact that she did not have an abortion for perceived political gain was not an element of the ethical decision-making process. Whether or not this is indeed the case, ethical egoism presupposes that a rational actor is obliged at all times to maximize self-interest: by this token, Sarah Palin's loftier moral claims for her own decision are rendered moot. Sarah Palin was, by profession, a politican when she decided not to have the abortion, and also reports that she weighed the possibility of having an abortion. The real world rewards of Palin's decision not to have an abortion were ultimately palpable: Palin became a culture hero to the political right in America, and her decision not to have an abortion translated into bona fides as a political spokesperson, and ultimately into a lucrative career as a reality-television star. If Palin had aborted the pregnancy, it would be unlikely that she could have cashed in, so lavishly, on the opportunities presented to become a spokeswoman for the pro-life worldview. This paradox is invoked not to mock Sarah Palin's decision to have her baby. Instead, it is intended to question the claim that ethical egoism "deserves to be regarded as a moral theory," as Kalin claims (Kalin 1982, 107). The simple fact is…